In 1813, her thirty-eighth year, Jane Austen published her second novel Pride and Prejudice. She had begun this work in 1796, when she was twenty-one years old, calling it “First Impressions.” It had so delighted her family that her father had tried, without success, to have it published. Eventually, Austen put it aside, probably not to return to it until her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, appeared in 1811. “First Impressions” is no longer extant, but it was presumably radically rewritten, because Pride and Prejudice is in no way an apprenticeship novel but a completely mature work. Pride and Prejudice continues to be the author’s most popular novel, perhaps because readers share Darcy’s admiration for the “liveliness” of Elizabeth Bennet’s mind.
The original title, “First Impressions,” focuses on the initial errors of judgment out of which the story develops, whereas the title Pride and Prejudice, besides suggesting the kind of antithetical topic that delighted rationalistic eighteenth century readers, indicates the central conflicts that characterized the relationships between Elizabeth and Darcy, and between Jane Bennet and Bingley.
As in all of Austen’s novels, individual conflicts are defined and resolved within a rigidly delimited social context, in which relationships are determined by wealth and rank. The oft-quoted opening sentence establishes the societal values that underlie the main conflict: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s opening dialogue concerning the eligible Bingley explores this truth. Devoid of individuality, Mrs. Bennet is nevertheless well attuned to society’s edicts. Mr. Bennet, an individualist to the point of eccentricity, represents neither personal conviction nor social conviction, and he views with equal indifference Bingley’s right to his own reason for settling there and society’s right to see him primarily as a potential husband. Having repudiated society, Mr. Bennet cannot take seriously either the claims of the individual or the social order.
As the central character, Elizabeth, her father’s favorite and her mother’s least favorite child, must come to terms with the conflicting values implicit in her parents’ antithetical characters. She is like her father in her scorn of society’s conventional judgments, but she champions the concept of individual merit independent of money and rank. She is, indeed, prejudiced against the prejudices of society. From this premise, she attacks Darcy’s pride, assuming that it derives from the causes that Charlotte Lucas identifies: “with family, fortune, everything in his favour . . . he has a right to be proud.”
Flaunting her contempt for money, Elizabeth indignantly spurns Charlotte’s advice that Jane ought to make a calculated play for Bingley’s affections. She loftily argues, while under the spell of Wickham’s charm, that young people who are truly in love should be unconcerned about financial standing. As a champion of the individual, Elizabeth prides herself on her...
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